Silenced By The Church by Father James Martin
All the passages below are taken from Jesuit Father James Martin’s book “My Life with the Saints,” published in 2006.
Initially, what drew me to Pedro Arrupe was a little prayer card I was given during my philosophy studies, shortly after his death. On its front was a black-and-white photograph of Fr. Arrupe at prayer, in his favorite Japanese style. Wearing a cassock, he sits in the Eastern fashion, feet tucked under him, on a bare floor. His scuffed black shoes lie to his side.
But it was not the image that captivated me but what was printed on the back: a prayer written by Arrupe shortly after he had suffered his stroke, and read out during that same address at the 1983 congregation. It was one of the most moving expressions of surrender I had ever read.
“More than ever,” he wrote, “I find myself in the hands of God. This is what I have wanted all my life, from my youth. But now there is a difference; the initiative is entirely with God. It is indeed a profound spiritual experience to know and feel myself so totally in God’s hands.”
For a long while I wondered: What could enable a person to approach life in this way? He wrote these words during a time of public censure after many years of service, and in the middle of a debilitating illness. What could account for his open and trusting attitude? An answer came when I stumbled across the story of an Italian journalist who interviewed Arrupe in the late 1970s. The journalist asked, “Who is Jesus Christ for you?”
One imagines that the seen-it-all journalist probably expected any one of a host of dull responses. The superior general could be counted on to say something like Jesus Christ is my friend, or Jesus Christ is my brother, or Jesus Christ is my leader.
Don Pedro, however, said this: “For me, Jesus Christ is everything!”
This popular meditation from Pedro Arrupe, which has been printed on note cards, posters, and coffee mugs, has a complicated provenance. Though it has been “attributed” to Arrupe, no one has been able to find it in any of Arrupe’s official speeches or letters. Fr. Vincent O’Keefe, SJ, one of Arrupe’s closest friends and advisers, once told me that it had most likely been copied down by someone at a talk given by Arrupe and circulated from there. And, said Fr. O’Keefe, it’s just the kind of thing Arrupe would say:
Nothing is more practical than finding God, that is, than falling in love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you will do with your evenings, how you will spend your weekends, what you read, who you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.
Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.
It was this radical stance, this utter dependence on and trust in Jesus Christ, that enabled Pedro Arrupe to fulfill his vow of obedience even during what for him must have been the most difficult situation imaginable: a public rebuke by the Vatican. And it is here that Arrupe inspires me the most and has become an increasingly important figure to me.
Over the centuries, many loyal and devout Catholics have been misunderstood and treated unjustly by the church. This is not a controversial statement. Think of Galileo, or, more to the point, Joan of Arc. In the past century, too, a number of committed Catholics have suffered mistreatment at the hands of the church they love. Before the Second Vatican Council, for example, many talented theologians, including such towering figures as the Jesuit John Courtney Murray and the Dominican Yves Congar, were “silenced” by Vatican officials and their own religious orders.
Murray, a theology professor at the Jesuits’ Woodstock College, had written extensively on the question of church and state, proposing that constitutionally protected religious freedom, that is, the freedom of individuals to worship as they please, was in accord with Catholic teaching. The Vatican, however, disagreed, and in 1954 Murray’s superiors ordered him to cease writing on the topic. But almost ten years later, Fr. Murray was asked by the archbishop of New York, Francis Cardinal Spellman, to accompany him as an official peritus, or expert, at the Second Vatican Council. It was there that the previously silenced Murray served as one of the architects for the council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom, which drew on Murray’s earlier, banned work and affirmed religious freedom as a right for all people. Toward the end of the council, John Courtney Murray was invited to celebrate Mass with Pope Paul VI, as a public sign of his official “rehabilitation.” Murray died a few years later, in 1967.
Yves Congar’s story is similar. The French Dominican priest, whom the Encyclopedia of Catholicism calls “perhaps the most influential Catholic theologian of this century prior to Vatican II,” wrote extensively on the church, specifically regarding questions of church authority, tradition, the laity, and relations with other Christian churches. Thanks to his groundbreaking work, Congar was a popular teacher, lecturer, and writer. In 1953, however, his book True and False Reform in the Church was abruptly withdrawn from circulation. The next year he, too, was ordered to cease teaching, lecturing, and publishing. Like Murray, however, Congar’s work proved foundational to the Second Vatican Council. As a participant in the council, Congar made major contributions to two central documents: the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church and the Decree on Ecumenism, both of which drew from his earlier, banned writings.
Yves Congar’s eventual rehabilitation was even more dramatic than John Courtney Murray’s: in 1994, he was named a cardinal by Pope John Paul II.
Before the council, many may have looked at the situations of Murray and Congar and said, “How foolish of them to keep silent!” Others might have said, “How absurd to keep their vow of obedience when they know that their writings would help the church!” Or, more simply, “Why don’t they just leave their orders and write what they please?” And over the years many who have been silenced or prevented from doing certain kinds of ministries have left the priesthood or their religious orders or even the church in order to say what they wanted.
What enabled Murray and Congar and other good servants of the church, as well as Fr. Arrupe, to accept these decisions was their trust that the Holy Spirit was at work through their vow of obedience, and that through their dedication to their religious vows, God would somehow work, even if these decisions seemed illogical or unfair or even dangerous. (Significantly, one of Congar’s final works was entitled I Believe in the Holy Spirit.) The stance is similar, I think, to the seriousness with which couples take their marriage vows during rocky periods in their relationship. They trust that even though things are rough at the time or their marriage makes little earthly sense, their vows are a sign of God’s fidelity to them, a symbol of the rightness of their commitment, and a reason to trust that God will see them through this period.
Murray and Congar were not the only ones silenced or prevented from carrying out their ministries in the twentieth century. During the latter part of his life, Thomas Merton faced growing fears that he would be prevented by the censors of his Trappist Order from publishing any writings on the cold war. In 1962, the publication of his book Peace in the Post-Christian Era was forbidden by his Trappist superiors, who also ordered him to cease writing on issues of war and peace. Merton was furious at the decision, saying that it reflected “an astounding incomprehension of the seriousness of the present crisis in its religious aspect.” His book, which contains what are by now widely accepted critiques of war and militarism, was finally published in 2004.
In a moving letter to Jim Forest, a fellow peace activist, Merton explained his decision and his understanding of obedience. His letter is quoted in Peace in the Post-Christian Era:
I am where I am. I have freely chosen this state, and have freely chosen to stay in it when the question of possible change arose. If I am a disturbing element, that is all right. I am not making a point of being that, but simply of saying what my conscience dictates and doing so without seeking my own interest. This means accepting such limitations as may be placed on me by authority, and not because I may or may not agree with the ostensible reasons why the limitations are imposed, but out of love of God who is using these things to attain ends which I myself cannot at the moment see or comprehend. I know he can and will in his own time take good care of those who impose limitations unjustly or unwisely. This is his affair and not mine. In this dimension I find no contradiction between love and obedience, and as a matter of fact it is the only sure way of transcending the limits and arbitrariness of ill-advised commands.
Pedro Arrupe, of course, having just suffered a stroke, was not able to write as eloquently about his obedience during his own trial. Nor is it likely that the more mild-mannered Arrupe would have used the same words that Merton did. But though he accepted things with greater equanimity than did Merton, the Vatican’s decision still pained Arrupe. One need only recall his tears at the news. Yet Arrupe’s short prayer about being in God’s hands, like Murray’s and Congar’s assent to their silencing, and like Merton’s remarks about knowing that God was at work in ways that he “cannot at the moment see or comprehend,” was a way of expressing his commitment to his vows, his belief that God would ultimately bring about good, and the fact that, for him, Jesus Christ was “everything.”
When I entered the Jesuits, I expected that obedience would prove to be the easiest of the vows. Poverty—giving up so much and living with so little—seemed obviously difficult. And I knew chastity would be a great challenge, too; it’s difficult to live without sexual intimacy and to experience loneliness so frequently. But obedience didn’t trouble me as much. After all, you just have to do what you’re told, right? Do the job you’re asked to do.
But recently, during the course of writing this book, I was asked by my superiors not to write about certain topics that are still too controversial in the church. So, wanting to remain faithful to my vow of obedience, and bearing in mind the words of Thomas Merton and the example of Pedro Arrupe, I accepted this decision, though I hope and trust that one day I will be able write about these things more freely.
Or perhaps, in the course of events, I will discover that my conscience moves me to speak more openly or explore other avenues of discourse. The longstanding tradition of the church, after all, is of the primacy, dignity, and inviolability of the informed conscience. St. Thomas Aquinas famously said that he would rather disobey church teaching than sin against his conscience. More recently, the Second Vatican Council, summing up Catholic teaching on the topic, declared: “In all his activity man is bound to follow his conscience faithfully, in order that he may come to know God…. It follows that he is not to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his conscience.”
“Conscience,” wrote the Council, “is the most secret core and sanctuary of a person. There he is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his depths.”
There is a long list of saints and holy persons who have felt duty-bound to speak out about matters concerning the good of their church, even at risk to themselves. Their consciences impelled this. During a time of crisis in the church in the fourteenth century, St. Catherine of Siena, the renowned mystic, wrote to a group of cardinals in Rome saying, “You are flowers that shed no perfume, but a stench that makes the whole world reek.”When asked how she could possibly know so much about Rome from her faraway post, she replied that the stench reached all the way to Siena. In 1374, in a letter to Pope Gregory IX, exiled in France, she instructed him to return to Rome. “Be a man! Father, arise!” she wrote. “I am telling you!”
Catherine could not remain silent.
But for Murray, Congar, and Merton, silence was not only what their vow of obedience demanded, but also what their consciences obliged. For their contemporary Pedro Arrupe, the issue was not so much remaining silent as it was patiently accepting mistreatment in the church and guiding the rest of the Jesuits, through his example, to respond with charity.
Needless to say, I am no Murray or Congar or Merton or Arrupe. But I know that God will somehow work through all of this. And I trust that both my vow of obedience and the desire to rely on my conscience will, together, prove in some mysterious way to be a source of life for me and for others.
I trust in all this because, as Don Pedro said, “For me Jesus Christ is everything.” [118-125]